A Guide for Generals Coming to the Pentagon: Getting to Know Civilian Colleagues

February 1, 2018

“I believe it’s a moral obligation for leaders to lay out clearly to the subordinates in the Department of Defense what it is we expect of them.”
-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis

As a child who followed her parents in the military to life and schools in three countries, and as an Air Force member whose life was affected by serving overseas, my affiliation to the Department of Defense feels personal, like part of my core.

I now work in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) as a civilian. It is an unusual job. Supporting the department’s senior civilian leaders as they make decisions of national consequence and issue guidance affecting U.S. troops is a distinct privilege. The moral obligation Mattis referred to is the same feeling that motivates most civilian defense officials to develop the best possible advice for the department’s senior leaders.

Military contributions to the defense mission are well studied. It can be harder to find an explanation of the department’s minority population — civilians — especially at the headquarters level. A defense-specific study of policymakers can be useful to those working at the Pentagon, especially military leaders interfacing with national political leaders for the first time.

Most of the secretary of defense’s staff are civilians — either political appointees specific to an administration or career civil servants. In addition to the secretary and the deputy secretary of defense, Senate-confirmed political leaders appointed into the department are key to “civilian control of the military.” OSD does include some military detailees, especially in offices focused on internal department processes.

OSD staff participate in governance processes essential to U.S. democracy, absorb all expertise relevant to defense issues, and shield the military from domestic politics. Working in OSD requires a different mentality and skills from serving in the military, as military detailees to the organization can attest. The mission and team-focused culture can feel similar, but the proximity to political power requires a fluidity and sensitivity to variables that are less immediate for military members. Military members benefit from, and contribute to, a collective reputation of competence. Civilians tend to be more individualized experts, assembled into different groupings as department leaders require.

Military leaders who overlook civilian policy contributions to the department risk increasing the gap between the American public and the military. They are also more likely to plan military activities misaligned from the nation’s political objectives. Conversely, I’ve seen that when civilian and military leaders understand each other’s contributions toward the common defense mission, the department is more effective in applying the U.S. military toward the nation’s political ends. Military members who learn from civilian colleagues during a Pentagon tour are better leaders in their next command. They can explain the political context and department-level strategy behind military operations to the troops.

Van Jackson has artfully described typical constellations within the national security community. When I worked in uniform, I had only a vague idea that these entities and the processes they oversaw existed.

After working in OSD for nearly ten years, I have a better appreciation for defense civilians and the policymaking art that they practice. Here are the main roles I have seen policy-focused civilians play:

Public servant. Like their military counterparts, civilians swear an oath to the U.S. constitution. Policymaking occurs within a living ecosystem whose players evolve with each election cycle (sometimes more frequently as political appointees leave and are replaced). Who the American public votes into the presidency matters. That president’s policy priorities and leadership team — and the civil servants poised to serve that team — enable the U.S. government to shift toward new policy directions away from the weighty inertia of the status quo. Civilians and their belief in this cycle are essential to the exercise of American democracy.

Strategist. Civilians contribute broad, defense-relevant expertise to senior leaders who need to view the military objectively as one instrument of national power. In most cases, the military is likely to be just one part of a broader U.S., and potentially international, effort to address a specific security challenge. Civilian expertise is needed to orient the military strategically within a broader U.S. government and global context. The regular rotation of political appointees into OSD brings fresh intellectual capital into the department. Of course, a lot of department leaders think strategically and issue strategic guidance. Specifying what constitutes a strategy and the relationship among defense-related strategies can help provide clear direction to the troops.

Connector. Civilians’ relationships with interagency colleagues, congressional staff, international actors, and experts outside government are important to the department’s ability to relate to external entities — especially given that military staff rotate into the Pentagon for shorter-duration assignments. Most allied governments have a strong desire for political alignment before committing their militaries to combined operations. One of my prior bosses in OSD brought decades-long relationships of trust with European counterparts, which enabled him to work effectively with allies to develop a unified NATO response to Russian aggression.

A military colleague once noted that it was hard to know a civilian’s qualifications, relative to a military member whose uniform provides a visual snapshot of rank, career field, and operational experience. Civilians do not undergo the standardized training and career paths that service members do. However, their varied academic and professional experiences help the department relate to other actors in the messy political reality outside it. Civilians’ more flexible role within the department’s hierarchical organizational structure can allow them to speak and operate in multiple environments more easily than a uniformed counterpart.

Translator. Career civilians can ease interactions and navigate cultural differences between political and military leaders. They can help political leaders refine policy objectives to reflect the military’s capabilities and limitations, and they can help the military understand political leaders’ guidance. Sometimes this may involve pressing military counterparts for options that meet leaders’ intentions, especially within supportable resource levels. This function is increasingly important as fewer U.S. political leaders are veterans with prior military experience. I’ve been the lone civilian in a conference room filled with military officers planning future operations. It was my responsibility to remind them of the secretary’s priorities and of political realities — the U.S. military’s incomparable scope and scale can make it hard to remember the need to focus resources where political leaders want them most.

Civilians, often with military counterparts, also represent the department’s policies to interagency and foreign policymakers. The civilian usually addresses policy objectives and political considerations, while the military member tends to explain resources required and how military activity will achieve the objectives. When the United States created an international coalition to fight ISIL, for instance, civilian and military leaders held parallel consultations with foreign counterparts along these lines.

Aggregator. OSD staff ensure that the department’s senior leaders have coherent analysis and relevant options to make decisions. Civilians aggregate the political, military, financial, legislative, and/or acquisition considerations necessary to achieve a desired effect. They are not experts in every area, but they wrangle all the relevant components to contribute toward a department-wide goal. A decision to invest — or disinvest — in base infrastructure is an example of complex, politically-sensitive decision-making facilitated by OSD’s framing of options. Civilian expertise in non-military considerations related to a base’s value is a critical complement to the military’s assessment. In addition, bureaucratically, only the secretary or deputy secretary’s staff can convene all the relevant department components to study whether to propose a domestic Base Realignment and Closure round or adjustments to overseas bases.

Based on this aggregate picture, OSD staff regularly recommend priorities to the Secretary, Deputy Secretary, and other Senate-confirmed leadership. Civilians often help assess requests for use of military resources, specifically helping to evaluate the possible tradeoffs in current and future readiness that might result. Career civilians are particularly sensitive to political leaders’ expectations for long-term thinking about competing force employment priorities and for guidance that maintains the health of the force. Civilians also help the department’s leaders connect policy objectives to specific investments — or reject proposals misaligned with leadership priorities.

Buffer. Part of the American public’s respect for the uniformed military stems from a perception that they are above the political fray. Military members are expected to do whatever the nation needs, as interpreted and directed by political leaders. The secretary of defense and other appointees in the department allow the military to maintain that distance by representing the department’s political positions and equities to external audiences.

During internal debate, OSD civilians are at their best when they ask political leaders the hard questions that would be tougher for someone in uniform to ask: Why are we sending forces? What is the intended effect? Is that effect likely, given the international and domestic political context? Do you accept the associated risks?

Advocate. Once senior leaders make decisions, civilian policy staff become the department’s champion to external audiences. Civilians ask Congress for authorities and resources by painting the policy narrative for why the Defense Department needs them (it certainly helps to have a uniformed counterpart join this outreach). When both civilian and military leaders testify on the Hill, Congress expects them to address their respective responsibilities related to the topic. OSD staff also represent the department’s policy views to the White House and partner agencies, especially if Congress has authorized “dual-key” resources that require cooperation with the Department of State. While working on Afghanistan policy, I would alternate between policy advocacy and implementation roles. I talked with congressional staff about the department’s need for specific authorizations and also conferred with U.S. forces in Afghanistan about how they were executing programs enabled by those authorizations.

Conscience. This one is the hardest to discuss but it’s the heart of OSD civilian contributions to the department’s well-being. The average American has no connection to anyone serving in the U.S. military. Few Americans write their congressional representatives asking why the military is operating in a foreign country. The American public’s disengagement, coupled with veneration, can prevent the military from being held accountable for its failures. Moreover, as resource advocates and troop leaders, military leaders with current command responsibility may have a hard time admitting to failure — or objectives being impossible. This dynamic can complicate the department’s ability to assess progress and adjust course. Of course, political leaders can find self-reflection and change challenging as well.

The Defense Department’s civilians have the knowledge, care, and professional responsibility to question the military when necessary. If military actions are not having the predicted effect, if resources are not aligned with leadership priorities, if a military leader is proposing options a political leader has rejected, or if any military activity has political or strategic effects, a civilian from OSD will likely come knocking. When that happens, it helps if civilian and military colleagues already understand and trust each other. When a secretary of defense receives options from OSD, he or she can be confident that staff have examined the issue at hand through a policy lens.


Each iteration of politically appointed leaders chooses how to use civilian and military advisors. Mattis’ decisions on how to use OSD will affect the staff capacity available to a future Secretary. Leaders who know the team they inherit can use it to magnify their influence.

The secretary of defense’s relatively small, mostly civilian staff contingent helps the department be thoughtful and deliberate about how more than two million active duty and reserve forces are employed. Understanding civilian contributions can prepare military leaders to serve the department’s senior leaders alongside civilian colleagues, to focus their collective energy towards the security challenges facing the United States, and to fulfill the moral obligation of defense leaders to provide clear guidance to the troops.


Nina Wagner is a senior strategy advisor in the Department of Defense. She has previously worked within OSD on Afghanistan, U.S. force posture abroad, and alliance relationships. As a Presidential Management Fellow, she worked in several components of the Departments of Defense and State, including the Joint Staff and U.S. Embassy Kabul. She comes from a family with multiple current and former members of the U.S. military.

The views presented are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense, its components, or the U.S. Government.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Andy Dunaway